The lack of “basic skills” is a recurring topic of conversation among employers and the general public. Almost daily we encounter people who cannot make change, follow a recipe, fill out forms, or write in an understandable way – even among some college graduates! Eighth grade graduates used to have the knowledge and skills to cope with everyday life: balance a checkbook, use measurements in household projects, fill out a tax return or employment questionnaire, read the newspaper, write letters, know how our government works, and vote in an informed manner. High school graduates used to be prepared to enter the workforce, or to continue with specialized studies in college. Two generations ago, graduation from 8th grade or a high school diploma could be depended upon to guarantee these levels of competency -- but no more. Today classes are smaller, use of technology is greater, teachers are better paid (the equivalent of engineers and lawyers in government service), and a greater percentage of local tax dollars go to education. It is counter intuitive that, with all of today's advantages, we often find graduates lacking 8th grade competencies. How did we get to this point? What are the implications for the future?
Although parents bear the primary responsibility for their own children's education, as a society we have entrusted education of the next generation to a “system” composed of teachers, administrators, and bureaucrats at the local, state, and national levels, and academics in the teacher colleges and universities. They determine what is taught, when it is taught, how it is taught, and the environment in which it is taught. We assume that the knowledge goals of 40 years ago are at least the minimum of what is still expected today, but the assumption would be wrong. I submit that changes to the education system over a period of decades have caused the results that we now find so unsatisfactory.
How the “system” has changed was brought into focus for me by an incident several years ago while serving as a school board member. Parents asked me why their seventh graders had spent four weeks in science class studying the soles of sneakers. Being a former science teacher, their question made me curious, too. I suspected the project somehow tied into the syllabus and requested a copy of the lesson plan, expecting a listing of the specific concepts the students would learn. What I received, however, contained no such list. Essentially, the plan said that the students would learn to design sneakers for fashion, form, fit, and function. The students' work looked like it came from a class in advertising and marketing rather than 7th grade science. Not sure where this fit into 7th grade science and thinking about the many concepts which could have been taught in those 4 weeks using traditional methods, I questioned the value of the project at a board meeting. The Director of Instruction informed me that this was an "award winning" (Science Teachers Assn. of NYS) project, and produced a checklist to show that the project met the state's new "higher" standards because the students were (paraphrasing from one of the standards) "using science to solve real-world problems.” This led to my discovery that the state no longer promulgated formal syllabi, which were very detailed descriptions, similar to a textbook, of exactly what concepts should be taught. Instead, the state encouraged teachers to use its new standards as guides in lesson preparation.
Review of the new standards made clear that they were performance standards rather than knowledge standards. Students would be assessed on their ability to do things in a certain way rather than on what they knew. “Knowledge” had been devalued in favor of “performance.”
The devaluation of knowledge and emphasis on performance can be traced to the wide-spread acceptance of the educational philosophies of psychologists John Dewey and Jean Piaget. These emphasize “learning by doing” and “child-centered” approaches (essentially, children pursuing their own interests) rather than the traditional approach of instructors directly delivering the knowledge that society expects the next generation to have. While the works of Dewey and Piaget provided important information on how the human mind acquires knowledge and develops intelligence, the practices that followed failed to address the function of the education system to transmit core knowledge within society. Over time, acceptance of these philosophies resulted in rejection of the authority of the teacher as the source of knowledge, rejection of rote learning, and rejection of standardized curricula. In their place, the system has substituted group activities, projects, students teaching each other, and community work, which reduce the teacher's role to a mere facilitator. It also introduced a plethora of specialized studies at increasingly earlier ages.
While “learning by doing” has its place, it is an inefficient method for transferring knowledge. Should an entire class period be devoted to experimentation with the hope that the students will re-invent the wheel, understand why it works, and avoid erroneous conclusions along the way, or should the correct concepts be presented and reinforced directly? Are the lessons "child-centered," or are they focused on those things society expects them to know? Which approaches are more likely to result in the greatest number of students learning what is intended or necessary? The constantly evolving and experimental teaching approaches are labor intensive and expensive, necessitating small classes and teacher assistants or aides to ensure that students stay on task and behave. With several thousand years of civilization behind us, if society has to depend on the next generation constructing for itself necessary knowledge through projects, group activities, and pursuing their own interests, the job simply will not get done.
Many students have difficulty attending to learning through activities. As each grade passes, the gap between the best and worst students widens, making a class increasingly difficult to teach. Some of these students get placed into Special Education, labeled as "disabled." Worse, they may be put on drugs such as Ritalin to make them attend. Others wind up in an “Alternative School,” labeled as “troublemakers” because they have become disruptive. Alternative school students are often three or four years behind their peers academically by the time they reach middle school. How could they be expected to attend to lessons that, to them, are being taught in a language that has become foreign? Two generations ago, Special Education was reserved for the truly handicapped: those who were hearing or visually impaired, or who had missing limbs. Structured and direct teaching prevented attention deficit disorder from becoming an issue. Alternative schools were unheard of. There was certainly no need to isolate such students and banish them to the BOCES “gulag” on Middle Settlement Road and have taxpayers pay through the nose to do it. Today the Special Ed population has virtually exploded and alternative education is commonplace.
Performance is often a function of maturity, natural ability, and cultural upbringing. Standards based on performance are somewhat subjective. When the grades are handed out, are the students being rated on what they have learned -- or sorted by who they are? How much heartache, frustration, life-impacting labels, and spending could be avoided by school systems taking the more traditional approach of direct instruction and assessment of knowledge?
Since internalizing core knowledge has been devalued, students have been trained to depend on others, on "experts," on the Internet, etc. for the knowledge that they may need. It has been many years since children from third grade up have been given calculators to do math, and now the Board of Regents wants to introduce them to kindergartners. Since math skills require years of practice to become second nature, is it any wonder why students have lost their abilities? Students who take the earth science Regents now are given an 8-page set of "standard reference tables" -- much of which used to be memorized by students 40 years ago. Since students cannot "look up" an unfamiliar word or concept in the middle of a lecture or conversation, they will miss the point of the discussion. While students may now be practiced in working together in groups, what can they contribute if they bring no knowledge to the table? While the Internet and "experts" can be helpful, how can one be sure if the information is "good" or applicable unless one has an adequate store of background knowledge to weigh the new information against? One cannot have “critical thinking” without core knowledge. By depriving students of core knowledge and fostering dependency on "things" that can be changed as easily as "find-and-replace" in Microsoft Word, we are setting them up to be manipulated by whomever is in charge of and controls the information flow. This threatens our way of life.
Children's education has become burdened with specialized (if not irrelevant) material at earlier and earlier ages that distracts and takes time away from the traditional material they are expected to know. It makes sense for students to take specialized courses in college and graduate school (because they are assumed to already have a solid foundation), and a handful of electives in high school (because they are assumed to have mastered the basics). However, having "magnet" schools at the elementary level or requiring high school students to pick the equivalent of a major on entering 9th grade (as in Utica's Millennium Project), dilutes the curriculum. When students at the "multicultural" magnet school study each other's customs, it is time away from drilling times tables, phonics, or spelling. People are well intentioned when they advocate providing students with laptops, robotics study, or requiring students to participate in community service or "school to work" programs, but what will be sacrificed for these specialized experiences? Is learning Microsoft Word more important than mastering the rules of grammar? Does it make sense to require students to learn the intricacies of a computer that will be obsolete in ten years?
Specialized studies at too early an age threaten creation of a modern Babel. Society's loss of a body of knowledge held in common is our loss of the lingua franca needed to communicate higher level ideas between generations, professions, and disciplines. What kind of future can we expect when our society has lost the ability to communicate with itself?
Students were once told that “Knowledge is Power” to encourage them to stay in school. Now we need to tell our educators to put knowledge back into schools, to make it worthwhile for students to stay there.
[This article was originally published in the September, 2009 "Utica Phoenix." Be sure to pick up the October Phoenix to read "The Ominous 4th Branch of Government," now available.]